Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Putting the Pieces Together

''Lebanon is more than a country - it is a message.'' So said the Pope when he visited Beirut in 1997, as the country was picking up the pieces of civil war and its way towards peaceful coexistence. ''A country of many religious faiths, Lebanon has shown that these different faiths can live together in peace, brotherhood and cooperation.''

Since then, Hariri's assassination, the 2006 war with Israel, and the recent murder of General Francois Hajj - tipped to become head of the army as part of the effort to resolve Lebanon's presidential impasse - have strained that metaphor to breaking point. But its relevance remains.

If Christians, Sunnis, Shia, Druse, and Jewish people cannot live in peace in Lebanon - where they have coexisted for millennia - what hope is there for the modern multicultural state, where doctrines of ethno-natural unity are increasingly challenged (the far right would say 'undermined') by migration and labour mobility?

Prior to this, my first trip to Lebanon, I would have been equally sceptical . Constant reference to sectarian tension across the media over the past few months seemed to point to the fact that these people simply couldn't live together, despite the best efforts of an elite political class to find consensus. Yet on arrival I found that the opposite is true.

Most people I met, from all sides of the religious spectrum, agreed they couldn't trust their politicians and that it is foreign interference, not personal grievance, which is responsible for much of the tension. Many also point to the quota system, whereby posts are parcelled out by politicians on strict sectarian lines, as a major factor in discouraging national unity. Change, they believe, can only come from the bottom up when citizens - tired of war, enmity and insecurity - take on their leaders and demand a fresh start.

It has worked before. Mass demonstrations following the murder of former PM Rafik Hariri, where sixty percent of the country, largely peacefully, picketed the parliament - leaving only young children, the elderly, and infirm at home - forced the Syrians out. And although Damascus' influence still hangs over the country, popular protest has largely delegitimised it.

I wouldn't want to speak too soon on the Lebanese situation. As my travelling companion pointed out, you only start to understand Lebanon once you realise how complicated the whole country is. However I do believe, from my brief exposure to its form of multiculturalism, that this country can give Europe some pointers when it comes to countering the recent upsurge in support for extreme right ideologies.
From what I was told, Lebanon's problems stem from politicisation of difference in the aftermath of Ottoman occupation, both during the French protectorat where Christians were given the upper hand, and post-independence, as part of the struggle over who had the right to claim the country for its respective tradition.

Conversely, the rise of racism and xenophobia in Europe is linked to the perceived threat to our dominant cultural norms by recent immigrants, be these norms secular - as is the case in France - or religious. Whether it's bans on Christmas nativity plays or bans on headscarves, there's a war being fought on our continent on whose sensitivities win the day. Yet one thing we have not realised -that the Lebanese have, after decades of fruitless civil war - is that there can be no winner in these stand offs.

We can - and they did - argue long and hard about who has the 'right' to dominant cultural expression but if we cannot recognise the diversity that exists on the ground (much of which, in Europe's case, was simply airbrushed out of the history books for the fiction of national unity in the face of minority cultures ) then we will never reach a resolution to current problems.

With time, Britain absorbed the Angles, the Saxons, the Picts, the Vikings, the Normans and the Danes. It welcomed Jews, Irish and Italians who now fit seemlessly into our understanding of who we, the British people, are. Why should we not expect the same from the cultures of recent migrants, while acknowledging that it will take a while for the rough edges to be smoothed through cultural acclimatisation?

The Lebanese example does not show sects mixing to the point of homogeneity - as Europe's integrationists, and many policy makers, increasingly demand. It does not demand an iron secularism, that precludes religious debate, for nowhere is religion a stronger force than in this tiny territory. Equally, experience of war exposes the pretence of the extreme right that the majority can simply exercise an iron fist over the minority and 'send them all back home' without a measure of violent payback.

With 12% of Europe's population of migrant descent, and growing, we are well past the point where people should seriously be entertaining old ethno-national ideas of cultural supremacy. But we are. A 2004 poll revealed that 33% of Europeans consider themselves racist, yet Europe needs migrants like never before to support its growth and social services in the face of population decline. Why? One reason must be the propensity for our leaders, like the Lebanese, to use these problems to their own advantage and create electoral dividends.

When people like you and me stop simply listening to media scaremongering, and go out and meet our neighbours, learn to understand their differences, and start to treat them as human beings, then - and only then - will we find the kind of solutions we can all learn to live with.

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